MN DOC Commissioner, independent office focused on curbing prison violence
Every day, the Minnesota Department of Corrections – and its leader, Commissioner Paul Schnell – receive about 100 letters from inmates.
Some are airing grievances or venting frustration. Others are trying to address the violence on the inside.
“They have ideas,” said Commissioner Schnell in a recent interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.
Schnell has become laser-focused on curbing attacks on corrections staff, especially after a particularly violent March where seven officers were assaulted in separate incidents.
The string of attacks prompted the commissioner to recently hold a meeting with a group of inmate representatives to pass along an urgent message.
“My message to them was, ‘we need this to stop, we need to work together to find a way to make this stop,'” he said.
Schnell said there is no singular solution to the violence, but there is growing concern about what they call “idle time,” or the amount of time inmates are not staying busy with programs, classes or other outlets.
In other words, keeping inmates busy so they don’t resort to violence.
Right now, “idle time” is at an all-time high.
“We know that the more full their time is, the less violence there will be on the inside, and the outcomes will be better when they leave,” Schnell said. “So this is really what we have to do is we have to make sure that we’re providing robust opportunities for transformation.”
The state also sought out transformations after the murder of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm in the summer of 2018.
With safety in mind, Gov. Tim Walz re-established an office that was cut decades earlier, where inmates can take their complaints outside of the Department of Corrections.
Margaret Zadra is only the second Ombudsperson of Corrections since the office opened back up in 2020.
“We really provide an avenue for them to have their concerns, you know, reviewed and hopefully resolved,” she said.
5 INVESTIGATES previously sat down with the people who held that job decades before her, who described the position as a “safety valve” that saved officer lives.
Zadra believes the work of her office is working to defuse violence.
“I can’t speak to any of these recent incidents,” she said, “What I can say is what we hear back from staff and incarcerated people that there’s value in having that independent oversight.”
That oversight, Zadra said, not only provides an outlet for people to air their grievances but can also lead to reports and recommendations for changes in the corrections department.
For instance, in this report last fall, Zadra recommended the DOC prioritize body-worn cameras for corrections officers to “create transparency, accountability, and protection for DOC staff and the population.”
That request is now in the governor’s budget, being considered by lawmakers.
“These are things that the DOC may have already been considering. But, you know, it helps,” Zadra said. “It helps that push as well to say there’s an outside entity looking at this and saying, you can’t just keep considering this, this needs to be prioritized.”
Every time there is a serious assault on a corrections officer, the prison goes into lockdown for several days – meaning visiting hours get canceled for everyone, not just the person responsible.
During the string of attacks in Stillwater last month, the prison was on lockdown for weeks on end.
Walz has proposed increasing the corrections budget, bringing it to nearly a billion dollars a year – more than a 12% increase over the department’s current budget. The ballooning budget is partly due to an expected jump in the inmate population.